If Zimbabwe holds an outsize place in the British psyche, the UK must make sure it uses its relationship with the country to encourage democratic changeby Alex Vines / November 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
Suddenly is it back to the future in Zimbabwe. The military made their decisive clinical move in the early hours on 15 November to stop quickening plans for dynastic succession from the then 93-year old President, Robert Mugabe to his wife, Grace. As several military officials observed dryly, “leadership in Zimbabwe is not sexually transmitted.”
Comrade Robert Mugabe struggled to extend his presidency with plenty of twists and turns but finally almost a week later, we found had negotiated a soft landing exit deal with the military and resigned after 37-years in power to avoid the indignity of impeachment. The recently returned to Zimbabwe Emerson Mnangagwa will be sworn in on Friday (24 November) as Zimbabwe’s third president and has already promised a ‘new democracy’ and policy focus on turning around Zimbabwe’s almost collapsed economy.
Every twist and turn in Zimbabwe had been closely covered by the British media. It was a valuable reminder that still, Zimbabwe is a British fixation.
No other African country during my professional career has attracted such emotion and attention in Britain as Zimbabwe. Indeed, we need sometimes to remind ourselves that Zimbabwe is not economically or politically strategic to the UK. Zimbabwe’s diaspora in the UK is 200,000—and 20,000 increasingly elderly British passport holders reside in Zimbabwe. Yet this middle sized, landlocked southern African country—that has suffered from acute poor leadership—holds an outsize place in the British psyche.
Zimbabwe is emotionally strategic for a generation of our politicians. The backbenchers and party grandees of both Labour and the Conservatives have ever since regularly asked questions about Zimbabwe—more than about any other African country, in fact, as acknowledged by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in his reply to questions on Zimbabwe in parliament this week. It was the only African country named in recent Conservative party manifestos until the 2017 manifesto dropped it.
Yet the last British Prime Minister to visit Zimbabwe was Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Relations between the UK and Mugabe went sour from the time Tony Blair was elected British Prime Minister in 1997. This was the same time that Zimbabwe began its concerted campaign to get more land from Zimbabwe’s white farmers—but expected Britain to fund the programme. In 2002, encouraged by the UK, the EU, US Australia and Canada slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe.
Simultaneously, Mugabe became shorthand for despotism. (I’ve even read in the Scottish press accounts of land disputes in Scotland being described as “Mugabe-style” land grabs.) I have no doubt that any survey of familiarity of African leaders by the British general public would be won by Mugabe—helped by his presidential stamina of 37 years.
Britain’s preoccupation with Zimbabwe is mirrored in Zimbabwe. Mr Mugabe told a crowd when he was celebrating his 90th birthday: “The British, we don’t hate you, we only love our country better.” What the British think and do is valued and we are seen there as a major power. Given the UK’s diminished international standing globally due to Brexit preoccupation, this is important. European and Commonwealth partners—although Zimbabwe is not currently part of it—such as Canada, Australia and the US co-ordinate on Zimbabwe strategy and look for British leadership. The UK embassy in Harare is one of the largest and the British footprint significantly larger than that of any other western nation.
Over the years the UK has invested deeply and significantly in Zimbabwe, way beyond any strategic value return to the UK. Some of this engagement—international development assistance, for example—has been valuable. But some of the diplomacy has back-fired.
Take the 2013 elections: London assumed that the opposition would win those elections and that the political opposition would prevail following the end of a Government of National Unity. The opposite occurred. ZANU won and, although fraud clearly did occur, my sense is that Robert Mugabe and ZANU legitimately prevailed. A bit like the Liberal Democrats cohabiting with the Conservatives in coalition government, the opposition MDC’s distinctiveness was rubbed off, not helped by a fragmentation and scandal.
London had put all its eggs in the opposition basket and in 2013 was ill-prepared to deal with ZANU having recaptured the state. Today, with the unexpected events of the last week and Emerson Mnangagwa in the ascendency, London is much better prepared. Learning from 2013, the UK diplomatic network is better connected across most parts of Zimbabwean society—having correctly concluded that change in Zimbabwe will come mostly through ZANU.
The key question now is what should London do? The new Zimbabwean president has a reputation for being pragmatic. His priorities are already evident: turning around a collapsed economy, demonstrating success and holding an election to be legitimised. Previously, he was part of ZANU, which was encouraging re-engagement with the West including with the UK.
This is significant. The scale of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis means that the new Zimbabwean government will need loans and support from many sources: the international financial institutions, China, and Western support and investment. Mnangagwa has already talked about a new democracy—this will need to be tested and encouraged. His past record shows his democratic pedigree is limited—he was not nicknamed “the Crocodile” for being saintly—but if he allows for a new, inclusive transitional coalition government, and permits institution-building and opening of democratic space, this would be a valuable step forward.
There needs also to be a debate on when they should have an election, and if the many millions of Zimbabweans in the diaspora should be given the vote. Currently elections need to happen by July 2018. It might be that both ZANU and opposition need more time, especially if an inclusive Government of National Unity is formed—but it should not be open-ended transition as Zimbabweans want to be able to choose their president through elections.
The UK should be encouraging democratic change, perhaps by sending a ministerial envoy quickly to Harare to exchange candid views about Zimbabwe’s future and how concerned partners like the UK can contribute. There hasn’t been such a visit since 1998—although the DFID permanent secretary visited Zimbabwe in 2016 and meetings between UK ministers and senior Zimbabwean officials have occurred at international conferences or in London since 2013 once EU sanctions on their travel were lifted.
Longer-term, I would expect more normalised relations between both countries to result in reduced British interest and engagement. But this is the time for Britain to show leadership, up its game in Zimbabwe and encourage an economically and socially prosperous Zimbabwe which is more democratic and enjoys accountable government.